Teaching unions say full September reopening of school is unrealistic under current Covid guidelines

Secondary schools will not be in a position to fully reopen in September if the current health advice on physical distancing remains in force.
Teaching unions say full September reopening of school is unrealistic under current Covid guidelines
ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie was among those addressing a special Committee meeting on the Covid-19 response at Leinster House. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins
ASTI General Secretary Kieran Christie was among those addressing a special Committee meeting on the Covid-19 response at Leinster House. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Secondary schools will not be in a position to fully reopen in September if the current health advice on physical distancing remains in force.

The Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response heard from teachers unions about the logistical difficulties schools around the country are facing in advance of the new school year.

Interim guidance from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre for the reopening of schools states that physical distancing of two metres, where possible, or at least one metre should be maintained between desks or between individual students or staff in secondary schools.

General secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), Kieran Christie, told the Committee that, based on the public health advice, "many schools will not be fit to go back on a full-time basis".

Mr Christie also said that implementing the guidelines "is not going to be cheap and [there's] no point in pretending that it's not going to be cheap" and said any rules on physical distancing in place outside of schools must also apply inside school walls.

"From our perspective, there simply cannot be rules on physical distancing that apply outside a school in wider society or business that don’t apply inside a school," he said.

Mr Christie pointed out that the cleaning bill alone would be substantial and that this would have to be borne centrally as schools simply can't afford it.

The ASTI also said that "a whole raft of issues" will need to be addressed in the next eight weeks in terms of remote teaching and digital literacy skills in order to allow for successful blended learning.

General Secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), John MacGabhann, echoed the call for additional resourcing by pointing out that the budget for cleaning in schools currently is already inadequate.

"The budget available to schools for cleaning is slight to poor and that is in the context of normal circumstances. In the context of Covid it is wholly inadequate. Proper cleaning is essential and, therefore, so also is a proper budget for cleaning," he said.

General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), John Boyle, said the reopening of schools was "an enormous logistical challenge"  and that any full reopening would require a "comprehensive level of staffing", including substitution for all absences.

"In Ireland, in something of a national embarrassment, we have the largest class sizes in the Eurozone. Many of our primary school classrooms have more than 30 pupils, with our European neighbours enjoying an average of just 20 in a class."

"This really matters when we look at applying social distancing. It’s imperative that the new government deliver on its commitment to address this matter," he said.

Meanwhile, the Fórsa trade union, which represents 15,000 non-teaching staff in the education sector, has described the decision to exclude Special Needs Assistants and other school staff from attending the committee meeting as "elitist and insulting".

Fórsa made a detailed submission to the committee in June, detailing the potential problems faced by SNAs, school secretaries, caretakers and cleaners.

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